🔼Persia: East of Eden
The name Persia once belonged to a huge empire, and is today mostly used to refer to the geographical area in which the much smaller derivative state of Iran (formally: Islamic Republic of Iran, which was named after king Aryaman, who lived around the time of David in 1000 BC) is situated, as well as its culture, history and language (Farsi, from the same root as Persia, which is spoken in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajkistan and some other formerly Persian regions).
The history of the Persian empire is complicated. The region boasts indigenous human cultures that are among the oldest in the world, and was populated by several roaming people groups. Most notable among these were the original Parsu, who had emerged as an Indo-European culture somewhere in the east and settled in Elam along some other eastern tribes.
One of those other tribes were the Medes, whose lands were annexed during the Assyrian expansion that also meant the end of Israel's northern tribes, but succumbed their foes by forging a clever alliance with several other subdued nations, including Babylon and Chaldea. That led to the formation of the formidable Median kingdom, which reached well into the territory of an amazing man named Cyrus, who explained his fellow Persians the benefits of peaceful federation, particularly of religions.
🔼Cyrus the Über-Great
Cyrus descended from Achaemenes (born around 700 BC, or so the story goes) who had founded the Achaemenid dynasty of rulers of Persis (now Fars province of Iran; its ancient capital was called Parsa or Persepolis by the Greeks), and was named after his paternal grandfather Cyrus the First. Cyrus the Second's maternal grandfather Astyages was a Median king and Cyrus may actually have spent his early childhood at the Median court (these stories are sketchy and obviously legendary, but it's not known to which degree). For some obscure reason, the mean Median king Astyages went to war with his noble grandson Cyrus, who by that time had just ascended the modest and feudal throne of Persis. The ensuing victory was Cyrus', but was also strikingly reported due to a mutiny on the Median side.
Cyrus marched onto to the Median capital, and kept going until he had conquered Lydia and Babylon (at which rivers the Jews famously sat weeping; Psalm 137:1) and, as Cyrus the Great, had liberated and united their countless tribes and peoples into the largest empire the world has ever seen, stretching from the Balkans to India.
Persia's signature quality was its promotion of religious and cultural diversity via a centralized administration, and for many centuries, Cyrus' Persia was remembered with great nostalgia as a time of world wide peace. It was that international nostalgic memory of Persian global freedom that paved the way for the copy-cat empire of Alexander of Macedon (the copy-cat Great).
🔼The name Persia in the Bible
Cyrus is celebrated as being the emperor who decreed the return of the Jews and the building of the Temple of YHWH in Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 36:23, Ezra 1:2, 6:3-5). Commentators often interpret this as part of a class-action to restore all religions in the empire without much favor for any of them, but the Temple of YHWH is Jerusalem itself represented the combined effort of all human insights into the working of creation (read for more on this our lengthy article on the Exodus).
It's this universal, combined and utterly human quest to understand the Creator through creation that gave rise to the Phoenician temple of Solomon first and the Persian temple of Zerubbabel second, and in a twisted way even in the Greco-Roman contraption of Herod. It manifests God's promise to Abraham, that he would be a blessing for all the families of the world (Genesis 12:3) as well as the world-wide Body of Christ that transcends all visible religions (1 Peter 2:5). It lies at the heart of the names of the Pharisees, Nazarenes and even Muslims and even the word "science," before later disciples turned these movements into tribal religions and swapped their books for swords.
In the Bible, the fertile relation between the Hebrews and the Persians is described in the stories of Daniel, Esther and Mordecai, and of course in the account of the Return told by Ezra and Nehemiah. But what is less well known is that only a small minority of the Jews returned to Judea. The majority remained in Persia and developed the dominant wisdom tradition that produced the Talmud (the Talmud is the Persian one, the much smaller Talmud from Jerusalem is called the Jerusalem Talmud). The "wise men" from the East who knew about the birth of Christ long before anyone else did and who famously came to Judea to honor him, were most probably Persian Jews (Matthew 2:1). And despite the persistence of folklore, these Persian rabbis were of course also the same people as the "shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night" in the words of Luke (2:8).
🔼Etymology of the name Persia
The origin of the name Persia appears to be not wholly agreed upon, but an excellent candidate is the ancient root far-, from whence come the Farsi word fars, meaning horseman, and the Arabic word farash, meaning stable [for horses].
The original Persians were either part of or developed close to the Eurasian nomads of the steppes, who are credited with the domestication of the horse. Tamed horses did wonders for the advancement of civilization, as well as for warfare and the centralization of large territories. For better or worse, the horse culture was exceedingly dominant in Eurasia, and it stands to reason that the Persians proudly dubbed themselves The Horse People.
This far- root may even be related to the Greek word περι (peri) and Avestan pairi-, meaning "around", from which come the modern Persian and Arabic word firdaus, meaning garden, and ultimately our word "paradise". This very common Greek word περι (peri) is also the root of words such as the adjective περισσος (perissos), meaning exceeding, and the noun περισσευμα (perisseuma), meaning abundance. The Greek name for Persia was Περσις (Persis), which to a Greek ear probably sounded like Land of Plenty. This is not so strange since even in our time the word Persia brings to mind surplus and luxury (think of Persian rugs, Persian cats and even the peach, or "persic").
Even more spectacular is the association with the word περιστερα (peristera), the proverbially plentiful bird we call "dove" in whose image the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus (Matthew 3:16). Even the name of the proverbial bad guys of the New Testament, the Pharisees, may ultimately derive from the name Persia, possibly because they were an offshoot of the Jewish wisdom schools of Persia. The predicate "bad guys" may in fact not at all be deserved: Nicodemus, Nathanael, Gamaliel and even Paul and Josephus had been Pharisees.
Certain scholars of bygone times have suggested that the name Persia might have been inferred upon the empire by Semitic foreigners (Babylonians or Akkadians), who named it after their verb פרס (paras), meaning to split or divide, and this on account of the geminous character of the Medo-Persian empire. The truth is more likely to be the exact opposite, namely that the Semitic word פרס (paras) was introduced into the Semitic language basin along with the domesticated horse. In Semitic, this word took on the administrative sense of "head" (forty "heads" of cattle) but literally came to denote the hoof (forty "hoofs" of cattle, which is not ten "heads" but forty), and since hoofs come in the split variety on bovines and pigs and such, the verb פרס (paras) also came to mean to split:
The name Persia probably literally means Land Of The Horses, but because the horse became known as "one hoofed" and then simply as "a hoof" and the hoof in turn began to be known mostly for its cloven variety of domesticated cattle, the name Persia in Hebrew adopted the additional meaning of Land Of Divisions.
This latter meaning may seem somewhat negative but it really isn't. The cultural arena of a political unit (a country or empire) is like an ecosystem, and just like the health and potential of an ecosystem goes hand in hand with biodiversity, the health and potential of an empire goes hand in hand with its cultural diversity. Remember that our hallowed word "ratio" denotes a part of a whole, and our word "science" comes from the Greek equivalent of פרס (paras), namely σξιζω (schizo), meaning to split or divide. To the Jews, the name Persia meant Land of Science.